Orsulak, forgotten man of spring, rebounds again

JOHN EISENBERG

September 26, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Joe Orsulak's professional life has a cyclical nature, with the same pattern evolving every year. In the spring he is forgotten but not gone, as the Orioles seek outfield solutions that never feature him prominently. By September, he is back among the team's leading hitters and most dependable players.

This year, for instance, the Orioles figured Dwight Evans and Randy Milligan would be big parts of their new, improved outfield. Orsulak? Well, manager Frank Robinson told him in April he'd be a part-timer, maybe start once a week. Orsulak, 29, was disappointed, but not surprised. "It happens every year," he said yesterday.

Now it's the end of September, and look: The forgotten man of spring is second on the team in hitting with a .279 average, third in hits, fourth in runs, fourth in at-bats and leads the American League with 21 assists, the latter a spectacular figure.

Sure, his chance opened up when Glenn Davis was injured and Milligan moved back to first base. But such breaks always seem to benefit Orsulak; after a while you begin to realize that, one way or another, he is going to wind up playing -- and producing. This is the fourth straight season in which the cycle has occurred.

In 1988, the Orioles were banking on Jeff Stone, Ken Gerhart and Fred Lynn (whew). In 1989, they brought in Phil Bradley and expected big things from Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux and Steve Finley. There didn't appear to be room for Orsulak. The same was true a year ago. Orsulak wound up leading the team in hitting in 1988 and 1989, and getting a career-high 413 at-bats last year, always working his way into the lineup.

Don't be surprised -- Orsulak won't -- if it happens again next year. Manager John Oates admires Orsulak's consistency and toughness ("he's the kind of player I want in my lineup") but admits left fielders usually produce more homers and RBI. You can almost see it coming: another new solution, with Orsulak again on the outside.

"I can't say I blame them for looking, though," Orsulak said. "When you finish 20 games out, you need to look for better players. Hey, I am what I am. I'm going to do my best, and it's pretty clear what I'm going to contribute. If they want to find a big power guy to play left field, who am I to say that's wrong?"

No, the Orioles aren't wrong for seeking more power for their lineup. But it's become clear that dismissing Orsulak, for whatever reason, is a mistake. This game is tough enough without casting aside a .280 hitter who can bunt for a hit, hit and run, sacrifice, hit first or fourth or ninth, waste maybe one in 20 at-bats and -- oh, yeah -- lead the league's outfielders in assists.

"The thing is," Oates said, "I know what I'm going to get over a season when I write his name in the lineup. Orsulak is a sure-thing .275 with 45 or 50 RBI and aggressive defense. A manager will usually gravitate to that kind of security. There are enough question marks out there. You just can't go wrong [with an Orsulak]. Put nine Joe Orsulaks on the field, and you'd have a winning team."

There were moments this season when it appeared such logic finally was flawed. Orsulak slumped into July with an average around .230. But then he embarked on a 21-game hitting streak, his .384 of August the highest monthly average by an Oriole since 1984. Orsulak says he doesn't know what went right. Oates says hitters always hit in the end.

Anyway, even when he wasn't hitting he was throwing base-runners out with startling regularity. It's been quite a season in the field for a player who was regarded as a defensive liability as recently as last year. In fact, that reputation has helped him throw out runners this year. Teams refuse to be frightened by his arm, regardless of the numbers.

He has thrown out seven Red Sox and Indians in the past two weeks alone. "I played with [Cleveland catcher Joel] Skinner in the minors, and I was talking to him before a game," Orsulak said, "and he told me he'd been telling them I had a good arm, but they just wouldn't listen."

The truth is Orsulak does not have a particularly powerful arm, but makes up for that shortcoming with aggressiveness. "He charges the ball hard and gets rid of it fast," Oates said. "And he will take risks throwing. Some of his assists have come on plays that weren't sound fundamentally. But he gambled and won. That's what you get with him. There isn't a player that gets more out of his talent."

At the very least, he has killed off his defense-poor rap. "I admit I was pretty bad out there when I first got here [in 1988]," Orsulak said, "but I had been out of the game a year with a broken foot and I really struggled to adjust. But I think now I'm a perfectly good outfielder."

He is that, and an above-average hitter, and a player the Orioles simply can't ignore. No matter how hard they try every spring. "It's the nature of the game, and I understand it," he said. "There are a lot of guys with more talent than I have. I just do the best I can, try to do one thing in every game to contribute to a win. If that makes room for me, great."

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